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The menopause will affect more than half of the world’s population, but it’s often a taboo subject. The average person still knows very little about what happens physically during this time, or the effect menopause can have on mental health.
But things are beginning to change. And October is World Menopause Awareness Month – a time to draw attention to a huge transition that so many of us go through.
To mark this, we caught up with the Healthily Chief Medical Officer, Maureen Baker CBE, to get her thoughts on some of your most common menopause questions:
1. Why do my breasts feel sore during menopause?
Breast tissue is very sensitive to hormones, including oestrogen. During the menopause, your hormone levels can vary a lot and may become unpredictable, which can cause breast pain. This should generally settle down over time, as your hormones stabilise.
2. Can menopause affect your sleep?
Menopause can cause sleep problems, and for a variety of reasons. First, sleep patterns tend to change as you get older. You’ll sleep for a shorter time, with less deep sleep, which means sleep quality tends to get worse.
Second, the majority of people who go through the menopause get hot flushes – and these can also happen at night, causing night sweats. Night sweats can make you overheat and sweat a lot, to the extent that you may need to frequently change your night clothes or bedding.
Some people are also more prone to anxiety and/or depression during the menopause, which can get in the way of good sleep.
3. How can I stop hot flushes without taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT)?
There are a number of lifestyle changes you can try instead of HRT. Getting enough exercise can improve your mood and your sleep, which may reduce your symptoms. Cutting down on caffeine and alcohol, as well as spicy food, may also help. And smoking is known to make symptoms worse.
At night, focus on keeping yourself as cool as possible – choose loose clothing and light bedding, and open a window to keep your bedroom well-ventilated.
There are also some prescription medicines for hot flushes that you and your doctor could consider, such as clonidine and paroxetine.
4. Is it common to gain weight during menopause, and why does this happen?
Weight gain is a common symptom of menopause, but not an inevitable one. Your body changes as you age and you have a lower muscle mass, which makes it easier to gain weight. On top of this, menopause can stop you from getting a good night’s sleep, which can be a factor when it comes to weight gain.
5. Are there any supplements you recommend taking during menopause?
A number of products are marketed as being able to help with menopausal symptoms, but there’s no good evidence that they’re effective.
A well-balanced, varied diet should give you all the essential vitamins and minerals you need. Having said that, some health authorities recommend taking vitamin D supplements, especially during winter months, when there’s little sunlight.
6. Can menopause cause nausea?
Some people do report nausea as a menopausal symptom, which is likely to be caused by your hormone levels going up and down.
7. Is it normal to get itchy skin during menopause?
Itchy skin is a commonly reported menopause symptom. Lower levels of hormones such as oestrogen can lead to your skin becoming dry and itchy.
Another common problem is genital itching caused by vaginal dryness. This can be treated with hormone cream or with a non-hormonal vaginal lubricant or moisturiser.
8. What are the most common symptoms during perimenopause?
Everyone’s menopause experience is different, but in the time leading up to it (perimenopause), periods often change from their previous pattern. They can become heavier and more painful, or lighter and less frequent.
Breast tenderness is common with perimenopause, as are hot flushes and night sweats. Disturbed sleep is also reported frequently, as are mood swings.
9. How would you advise someone to prepare for menopause?
Make sure you’re getting regular exercise and eating a good and varied diet. If you smoke, this is a good time to think about quitting. It’s often harder to stop smoking when other things, such as menopausal symptoms, are going on.
10. What are the biggest misconceptions about menopause?
That everyone gets horrible symptoms. In fact, they are mostly mild, and some people have no symptoms at all.
Many people worry that menopause will cause low sex drive (libido), and that sex will become difficult or uncomfortable. Vaginal dryness can be an underlying cause here, but generally, this is easily treated.
One important concern around the menopause is about the safety of HRT, especially in relation to breast cancer. The risk is small, and often, the benefits outweigh the risks. But talk to your doctor about it before you make any decisions.
Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.